Watered down

Nagpur’s pioneering scheme was ready for learning curve problems, but diminishing financial and political aid has pushed it into uncharted territory

Written by Vivek Deshpande | Nagpur | Published: June 3, 2017 1:54:46 am
nagpur, nagpur 24x7 water supply, nagpur water supply, nagpur water, india news, nagpur news Water treatment plant at Kanhan, near Nagpur. Photo: Orange City Water

“For 25 years until 18 months ago, water scarcity had put us under constant stress. Fights at two public taps, which would dispense water between 3 and 6 pm everyday, were common. These fights strained relations among the 220 households in our slum. We were confined to our homes through the day to catch water and even had to make children skip school to stand in queue. What’s more, the water would often get mixed with gutter sewage, causing health hazards. But all that has changed,” says Shakila Begum, 50, from Dasharath Nagar slum in the Gittikhadan area of the city.

“For the past 18 months, we are getting 24×7 water at our homes. Not only have the strained relations eased out, our children can now focus on studies and the women can hope to invest their time in supplementing the family’s income,” she adds.

At Sangharsh Nagar slum in Lakadganj area, women have similar stories to recount.

While these are vignettes from many parts of the city, many other localities have either not benefitted from the 24×7 Water Supply Scheme — the first public-private partnership (PPP) project of this kind in the country launched in 2012 — or have simply stonewalled it.

Championed by Nagpur Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP and the Union Minister for Road Transport & Highways and Shipping Nitin Gadkari, the scheme, outsourced by the BJP-ruled Nagpur Municipal Corporation (NMC) to a private company called Orange City Water (OCW) Pvt Ltd, has been earning more brickbats than bouquets from public and politicians of all hues, including the BJP.

Last month, the district guardian minister and state power minister Chandrashekhar Bawankule, pulled up at senior OCW officials for allegedly not being sensitive to people’s complaints.

Interestingly, on May 8, when the BJP-led state government gave an urban development prize to the scheme for best implementation, the BJP leaders accepted the award. However, now, BJP politicians’ criticism has put a big question mark over the scheme’s future. Complaints like inflated bills, restricted supply and contamination have surfaced from time to time.

When The Indian Express visited Pandhrabodi and Sanjay Nagar slums from the ‘demo zone’ of Dharampeth that first received 24×7 water supply, the complaints couldn’t be verified. Of the 10 randomly selected households, except for one, none had an inflated bill for a three-month period.

Rajesh Nangre, Rs 150 for a three-member family, Nirmala Dhotre (Rs 633, four members), Bhushandas Sonekar (Rs 204, six members), Akhadu Sonekar (Rs 318, two members), Bapurao Dhabekar (Rs 114, four members), Waman Chaware (Rs 2,569, 12 members), Janbaji Kamble (Rs 122, three members) and Gitamsingh Balkhane (Rs 786, four members and ongoing construction) had bills in the normal range, while Shamrao Tandekar’s bill (Rs 1,719, four members) showed deviation from the normal.

nagpur, nagpur 24x7 water supply, nagpur water supply, nagpur water, india news, nagpur news Shakila Begum from Dashrath Nagar. Monica Chaturvedi

There were no complaints of contaminated water, but their versions varied on the number of hours they got water for. While some said they received 24-hour supply, others said they got it for lesser hours. Since many houses are on a hilltop, supply gets restricted.

The downslide of the scheme, considered by experts as the future of urban water supply, coincided with the change of guard at the Centre and in the state in 2014.

The scheme, jointly funded till 2014 by the Centre, the state and the NMC in the ratio of 50:30:20, suddenly had its support withdrawn by the Modi government. The government stopped funding to all the erstwhile Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) schemes whose progress was below 50 per cent of the target when it decided to shift to its Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) scheme.

Funds for the Rs 472-crore scheme have virtually dried out. About six months ago, the then municipal commissioner, Shravan Hardikar, had to issue a “de-commissioning and de-mobilisation” letter to OCW to stop all capital expenditure works, such as pipeline laying and providing new highly sensitive high-fidelity metered connections. Now, the state government has decided to give it Rs 95 crore under the capex head and has promised to release another Rs 65 crore soon.

OCW was formed in 2008 as a joint venture between the French 24×7 water supply pioneer Veolia and Nagpur-based Vishvaraj Infrastructure Ltd. The NMC partnered with it in 2009 through a newly formed venture called Nagpur Environment Services Ltd with the municipal commissioner as its ex-officio chairman and the former chief engineer of Waterworks as its director.

The actual implementation started in 2012 due to delay in the tender process and repeated revision of terms by NMC to ensure that it remained in complete control of the scheme’s basic components.

The aim was to reduce non-revenue water (NRW) from over 60 per cent to 25 per cent in five years. But within two years, the JNNURM-AMRUT transition pushed the scheme into unchartered territory. Central funding stopped and there was hardly any way to replace it. The scheme has remained virtually dysfunctional over the past year. The state government’s fund of Rs 95 crore, which was supposed to come in March 2016, came in May 2017. Last year saw a huge spurt in complaints of inadequate-to-poor water supply. Although unforeseen circumstances tied the company’s hands on many counts, there were reports of lapses on the company’s part as well.

Bawankule says: “There is no doubt that OCW has brought in a lot of infrastructural improvement resulting in overall better water supply to the city, but our MLAs have been receiving many complaints about erratic and insufficient water supply from many localities. And that is why there was outrage against the company. There are no two opinions about 24×7 water supply being a very good idea.”

Arun Lakhani, chairman and managing director, Vishvaraj Infrastructure Ltd, said: “We need to look at the failures and successes of the scheme in a holistic, not a pessimistic, way. Being the first scheme of its kind, implementation was always going to be very complex since it was to overhaul the existing system where non-revenue water (NRW) accountability was virtually missing. I admit that we may have faltered on some counts but that is because we were on a learning curve.”

He added that when a robust professional system replaces a largely non-accountable one, there are going to be complaints from previous stakeholders. “Inflated bill complaints were largely due to inadequate understanding about the new meters which accurately measure all the leakages. A leak-less connection would ideally get Rs 150 bill per month for a five-member family. Although we replaced 540 km of pipeline from the overall 2,500 km length, areas like north and east Nagpur are very difficult due to the resistance from people to accept the new system. About 136 km of new high density polyethylene (HDPE) pipeline remains to be laid. The city had 3.12 lakh connections but only two lakh were billed. We have so far replaced about 1.38 lakh old meters with the new ones. The deletion from JNNURM was an unexpected blow that badly affected capex works.”

“The capex works were to be completed in five years and operation and maintenance (O&M) was to be of 20 years. But three years of capex paralysis is sure to delay the project,” he added.

New Municipal Commissioner Ashwin Mudgal has given another 15 months to the company to complete the works. “I believe it won’t be sufficient and we will seek more time,” Lakhani said.

Dinesh Rathi of Dinesh Rathi Consultants, who are O&M consultants of NMC and the original proposer of the 24×7 water supply scheme for city, however, feels that 15-month extension would be adequate. “Capex funds break and learning curve factors have sure caused inordinate delay. It’s not an engineering but a socio-engineering project. Its 20 per cent technology and 80 per cent stakeholder participation. So, all involved are responsible for its success or failure. So far, 12 of the 68 command areas covered by as many elevated service reservoirs (ESRs) have been converted into 24×7. Some other areas are getting 8-10 hours supply. 32 command areas are getting more than four hours water supply. Thus, water supply has been rationalised to a great extent till now except for the new irregularly coming up localities where tankers have to supply water as also to areas where capex works like laying of pipeline hasn’t yet been done. But the funds had been coming in lesser quantities though till about six months back with NMC squeezing them out from various sources. So far, about Rs 250 crore capex funds have come in for OCW’s use. Thus technically, funds have stopped only for the past six months. That’s why the 15-month extension should be enough,” he said.

Rathi, a water supply consultant for many states, points out that the rate of new connections now has to be about 300 per day. “Clearly, a large fleet of plumbers is required. Earlier, plumbers doing the NMC work made extra bucks for new connections, which was not part of the standard regimen. That money is now out of bounds so they would naturally not be on board. So OCW should have created its own team of skilled plumbers and was actually mandated to do it. That, however, hasn’t happened,” Rathi added.

Hardikar, now the municipal commissioner at Pimpri-Chinchwad and who has overseen about last three years of 24×7 progress admitted that there were complaints about contamination, irregularity and overbilling. “There were about 20,000-odd complaints, but when seen against the population of 27 lakh, it shouldn’t be overstated. And 80 per cent of those were from unauthorised connections. One year of solid political support is needed to convert unmetered connections to metered ones. The clash arises when supply is sought to be curbed to unbilled consumers,” Hardikar says.

He also points out to the “performance contract” where OCW is supposed to bring down NRW from 60 to 25 per cent in five years. “Performance is directly related to curbing unauthorised drawing of water. That is why also the company hasn’t managed to keep the performance level,” he said. On Hardikar’s directive, OCW had subsequently appointed a team of 40 social communicators to raise awareness among consumers about the scheme’s benefits. OCW has also cultivated Water Friends network comprising select people from localities trained in explaining the scheme to other residents and has taken model slum development initiatives.

Another senior official said, on condition of anonymity, that “politicians should also help in raising awareness about the benefits instead of joining the clamour of complainants. What they forget despite being the ruling party is that NMC is very much a partner in the scheme and hence also has a responsibility in making the scheme a success.”

Sceptics, however, continue to pose questions. “It is necessary to make realistic assessment of whether OCW has fulfiled the promises. How many are getting 24×7 water after OCW came into being about eight years ago? Is the water rising up to nine meters as promised? Is it bacteria-free? What about inflated bills? Questions like these cry for answers,” says Ravi Kaskhedikar, who had run a campaign against “privatising” water supply and involving a foreign partner through his Jan Akrosh organisation.

Gadkari too minces no words about NMC’s failure. “The NMC didn’t act fast enough initially leading to the scheme getting disqualified for AMRUT. About 75 per cent of the infra work has already been done. Despite complaints, there were no morchas. Lack of government funds was also an issue but now funds are coming. The state government has also permitted pipeline laying in unauthorised layouts. I have discussed these things with Bawankule and hope everything will fall in place soon,” he told The Indian Express.

The scheme and the thought

The main aim is to ensure quality of water. A pipe that is constantly filled with water gives no scope for contaminants to enter and pollute the water flow. This forms the foundation of the concept of Uninterrupted Water Supply Scheme. Another aim was to reduce the NRW for the Corporation by 100 per cent metering of water connections. This was to be achieved by replacing the 40 per cent dilapidated network and replace the house service connections along with meters. Meterisation leads to vigilant use of water and that in turn leads to water conservation.

As per the contract, NMC remains the sovereign owner of the infrastructure, has all the rights of connections, disconnection and of tariff revision.

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